Reality Reflecting Criticism: Tropes vs Women in Video Games

Meet Anita Sarkeesian. She runs the media criticism site Feminist Frequency. One of her focuses is on the use of tropes in media. Essentially, she breaks down how certain character types repeat over a broad range of media. Here's a sample. In this video, she analyzes the use of Katniss Everdeen in The Hunger Games through the lens of realistic responses to violence and trauma. Her analysis is even-handed and backed up by evidence every step of the way. She defines her focus and presents her arguments in a clear and logical way.

Sarkeesian decided to launch a Kickstarter project to examine five tropes used again and again in video games. She does not use loaded language or judge the repetition as overtly negative or positive because she hasn't completed her research. True, she says that the tropes are "harmful." That's when she also mentions that there are games that hit on these tropes in more positive ways.

The goal was to raise $6000 to cover the costs associated with playing hundreds of video games for five videos. Presumably, these include acquiring the games, capturing images and playback, research expenses, and the actual labor that goes into putting a video series together. It's a small amount for a video game project. Plus, that's a genre that has really taken off on Kickstarter recently.

The project has been so successful that Sarkeesian is going to produce 12 videos: another six videos on tropes and one video on common defenses of sexism in gaming. She's even writing a classroom curriculum to accompany the videos. What a great and positive use of resources for education, right?

Not so fast. Anita Sarkeesian has gone from pop culture critic to an example of how women are portrayed in media. Apparently, some male gamers have decided that Sarkeesian is a bad person for even suggesting that there might be female stereotypes in games.

That's the kind way of saying what they're doing. The reality is disturbing. A group of 4Chan users--though I doubt they're the only ones doing it--are trying to get her Kickstarter project taken down for various TOS violations. They're flagging her YouTube videos as hate speech because, to them, feminist means someone who hates men. They edited her Wikipedia page so much that it got locked. They flooded her comment sections with hate speech, telling her to lie back and take it, go back to the kitchen to get them a sandwich, or shave off her hair and stop wearing makeup if being a feminist matters to her.

It doesn't matter that Sarkeesian hasn't said any of the things they accuse her of saying. They're trying to redefine the argument as "video games aren't designed for women" or "men are portrayed poorly, too, so this project is invalid." They're actively campaigning against her success for a number of reasons that have nothing to do with her project. It's clear that most of the participants in this effort did not watch her Kickstarter video or read her project proposal. They're setting up straw men while demonstrating the continued need for this kind of research at all.

Tropes vs Women in Video Games LogoTo Sarkeesian's great credit, she has not removed the comments. They are, if nothing else, evidence of the harm that stereotypes and tropes can bring through pop culture. The arguments they're making are arguments that are constantly fed through the channels of pop culture.

Cartman says most of these things on South Park and he's quoted verbatim in many of the comments. You can find references pulled from Peter Griffin, Stan Smith, and a host of other TV and movie characters. In the context of their shows, this behavior is funny because the writers realize how absurd the comments are. In the real world, it's disturbing because these people actually believe what they're saying.

Anita Sarkeesian's project is funded so long as the Kickstarter stays up. As of this posting, she raised over $92,000 for the Tropes vs. Women in Video Games project. I look forward to seeing her finished videos and can only hope that these objectors actually take the time to listen to her actual arguments. I'm not holding my breath.

What do you think? Any games you think Sarkeesian should look into for the project? I think Haunting Ground provides an interesting angle for Damsel in Distress. Fiona is the active investigator in the game, but she is incapable of defending herself against any attack unless her big strong dog is by her side. One game mechanic is actually running away and hiding to decrease the risk posed by a hulking male menace.

And what about this whole "they're only trolling" defense I've seen pop up? Does that mitigate the outrageous nature of the attacks at all? Sound off below. Love to hear from you.

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